The Sunshine State has hundreds of miles of amazing coastline. Many of these areas cater to building, tourism, and general consumer activities. When I want to visit the beach, without the tourist traps, I go to Honeymoon Island State Park with its four miles of pristine, protected, natural beaches.
The white sandy shores and calm turquoise waters invite a sense of calm that erases the anger I experience on the traffic-ridden drive there. Once we pass the payment booth at Honeymoon Island State Park, we enter a new world, that of Old Florida’s relaxed and easy-going beauty.
In this stunning slice of land where osprey, bald eagles, seagulls, and pelicans fly overhead, and large gopher tortoises burrow tunnels underground, it feels like time stands still. Though this beach gets very busy in the summer, it does not cater to tourists. You won’t find boardwalks with ice cream shops, chain restaurants, and bars. This is beach-going for the locals. And if you find yourself in central Florida, you won’t want to miss it.
An Island Split in Two
This natural barrier island which lies off the coast of Dunedin, first appeared on a map in the 1800s under the name Hog Island. The Tampa Bay hurricane of 1921, the last hurricane to make a direct hit on the Tampa Bay area, crossed over the island and split it into two. One of these islands is called Honeymoon Island, the other Caladesi Island, which is only accessible by boat.
Saved by the People
Honeymoon Island has an eclectic history, starting with its use by the native Tocobaga people who harvested food and materials from the gulf waters until the arrival of European explorers. In 1938, businessman Clinton Washburn purchased the island. He ran a campaign stating the island was perfect for honeymooning couples, and he had several cottages built for that purpose.
In the midst of World War II, a defense contractor leased the island to test amphibious vehicles and provide a place for their employees to decompress.
It was in the 1960s that Honeymoon Island dodged a common Florida scenario. A company purchased the island intending to build 4,500 residential units. In order to do this, they dredged fill from the Gulf of Mexico to increase the landmass on the island. However, much of this fill was rocky and difficult to use.
Thanks to the efforts of Suncoast Active Volunteers for Ecology (S.A.V.E), the government denied future dredging permits for the condo development district. The state of Florida began purchasing parts of the island until they opened it as a state recreation area in 1981.
Visitors can see evidence of the brief period of development that was available on the island. Several condominium buildings sit near the entrance of the park today. Fortunately, efforts from the environmental group and the local government halted further development. Now, thousands of visitors can enjoy this stunning coastline every year.
The beaches have several access areas with parking lots starting at the south end. If you travel further down the paved park road, you’ll find access points for The Oasis and North Beach.
You can also reach the North Beach by parking near the playground on the right side of the island. Brown signs with white lettering mark all parking areas. The main park road makes a loop, so even if you miss the part of the beach you want to visit, you can easily drive around the loop and get back to where you want to go.
I prefer the North Beach area because it’s less rocky and gets less crowded than the rest of the island.
The Oasis section of beach is toward the north end of the island as well. Here, you can park close to the beach where the soft crystalline sand reaches the lot.
Lastly, if you plan to bring a canine companion, the south end of the island has a designated dog beach. This area also has the largest parking lot and houses Café Honeymoon.
There are bathhouses in each of the main parking areas at the beach. The parking lot near the playground and picnic areas has restrooms only. Outside the bathhouses, the park has outdoor showers for visitors to rinse off.
The Osprey Trail
Of course, there’s more to see here than the beach. My family and I recently visited on a cold and windy day to hike the Osprey Trail, which we hadn’t done in a while. This 2.5-mile flat trail makes for an easy but interesting stroll.
As the name of the trail implies, we saw several ospreys on our hike. When you walk this trail, it’s important to look up to see them. Osprey like to build large nests in the tops of dead trees. This practice makes their nests, and the birds, easy to spot.
Keep an eye out for other native animals such as the great-horned owl, gopher tortoise, and bald eagle. The park has blocked the trail off toward the north end to protect a bald eagle nest. Visitors can view the nest from the barricade. If you’d like a better view, bring binoculars or a camera lens that can zoom in to see these majestic birds. The best time to see them is during the nesting season in the spring.
There are benches along the trail, as well as sun-bleached interpretive signs about the wildlife and ecosystem. According to the park service, this native pine forest has trees that are over 200 years old, having withstood Florida’s volatile tropical weather systems.
If you hike this trail in the summer, keep in mind shade is scarce. You’ll want to bring protection from the brutal summer sun, like a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
Playground, Pavilions Picnic Areas
If spending the day at the beach isn’t enough to wear out the little ones, there’s a large playground at the north end of the island. This Limitless playground, picnic tables, and covered pavilion are also accessible from the north beach via a short, sandy trail.
Near the entrance of the park, the Nature Center is nestled into a small clearing behind palm trees and other native flora. The yellow building that houses the nature center sits high above the ground overlooking the water.
Here you’ll find information about the history, animals, and habitats that make up Honeymoon Island. Displays show taxidermy animals such as racoons, an osprey, and shorebirds in their habitats.
A large map gives visitors a glimpse into the migration patterns of different bird species, along with a list of which ones you can spot on the island throughout different seasons.
My kids love the interactive displays that allow them to touch items in a covered box and try to figure out what they are before opening the door. Near the back wall, there’s a long cabinet that displays every type of shell, seaweed, and coral that washes up on the island’s shores. If you found something on the beach but you’re not sure what it is, this is where you’ll find your answer.
Even if nature centers aren’t your thing, this is still worth a visit. The raised building sits about two-stories high with a porch that extends across the back. During our visits, I enjoy sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the porch and taking in the epic surrounding views while my kids look through the mounted telescopes.
Café Honeymoon is housed in a small gray building selling food, drinks, and beach supplies next to the parking lot at the South Beach/Dog Beach area.
To the south of Honeymoon Island, and only accessible by boat, is Caladesi Island State Park. You can either use your own boat to get there, or take a ferry from Honeymoon Island. The Caladesi Island Ferry is a third-party service that launches from the docks at Honeymoon Island. Click here for more information about getting to Caladesi Island State Park.
Honeymoon Island is a great place to go shelling, fishing (state laws apply; fishing license required), bicycling, and paddling. Though the state park website lists surfing as an option, the usually calm waters of the gulf mean there’s little in the way of surf on these shores.
Know Before You Go
Hours – Open daily from 8 a.m. to sundown
Fees - $8/vehicle, $4/single-occupant vehicle, $2/pedestrian, $4/vehicle starting one hour before sunset
All buildings in this park are wheelchair accessible, with ramps leading to the entrances. The Florida State Park system allows service animals in all areas of its parks.
The park permits dogs at the dog beach and along the nature trail, on a leash no longer than six feet.
There are restrooms located in the Nature Center, at the playground/picnic area, and at the bathhouses in each parking lot.
Florida’s weather can feel rough and unpredictable. From May to October, expect oppressive heat, sporadic thunderstorms, and tropical storms (though these are more typical in August and September).
From November to April, the weather could range from warm to freezing – sometimes on the same day. Make sure to check the forecast before venturing to the beach for the best experience.
Have you been to Honeymoon Island before? What’s your favorite Florida beach? Drop a comment below! We’d love to hear from you.